Jan 18, 2010

Alive in Necropolis, by Doug Dorst

I really, really liked this book. It truly defies attempts to set it into one category or another. Despite the graphic sex and drug scenes, Dorst manages to not make his novel seem vulgar at all. Instead, the book is about lonliness, about that internal drive we all have to just feel like we belong, like somebody cares, like somebody loves us.

The book is ostensibly about Mike Mercer, a rookie cop in Colma who spent the years after college without a purpose in life. He has a much older girlfriend who he is clearly very fond of, but is, as he puts it, too afraid to let go and find out if he loves her or not. The book is about so many more people than Mike, however. It's about Jude, the 16-year-old son of a movie director father who doesn't care enough to try to understand him; it's about Mike's coworker Officer Toronto, who has serious anger management issues and a habit of falling hard for women who cannot love him back; it's about Mrs. Featherstone, the widow of a cop whose life has even less meaning without her husband than it did with him; it's about Fiona, Mike's older girlfriend who's watching the seconds tick by as though they were years of her life. What all these people have in common is simply the need to be heard, to be seen, to be cared about as much as they care.

Plot-wise, the book is really quite clever. In Colma, the city of millions of graves the dead live on their lives much in the ways they did when they were alive. But Doc Barker, a sociopathic criminal, and his three companions have gotten out of control since Wyatt Earp left town. They assault the dead, demand items of emotional value, and then kill them, for good. What the dead of Colma need is another enforcer of the peace, and this is where Mike comes in...

Discourses of Desire: Gender, Genre, and Epistolary Fictions, by Linda Kauffman

Unfortunately, what started out as a very interesting idea - an attempt to define a genre that has yet to be recognized - ended up being a very long college lit paper. The ideas are all there, but the organization is atrocious. Instead of simply sticking to her point, and thereby making the book possibly a hundred pages shorter, Kauffman delved far too deeply into generalized literary criticism. Each paragraph would start with a topic sentence that was referential to the book, but then continue to go deeper and deeper into subjects that were hardly relevant. Kauffman comes off looking like an over-excited college senior, brilliant and imaginative, but disorganized and unedited.

Kauffman's argument is that amorous epistolary discourse is a genre in itself, a genre that started with Ovid's Heroides, flowed through the letters between Abelard and Heloise, a possibly fictional Portuguese nun to her French lover, and on to various novels, such as Clarissa, Jane Eyre, The Turn of the Screw, and Absalom Absalom! Obviously, what is unique about this genre is that it encompasses the actual correspondences between former lovers, and fictional ones as well. These discourses are typified by legal language, absence, the writer who writes to someone else but mostly to herself (and it is always a woman).

While I take no issue with Kauffman's argument, it is difficult to agree with a premise that is so badly set forth. Not only is the organization and editing terribe, but Kauffman assumes that we have read all these pieces. Of course she cannot write a description of each and every one, and certainly her book has encouraged me to read many of them, but it is exceedingly difficult to understand a point of literary criticism when one does not even know the plot! Not to mention the spoilers involved.